Week 4 of the semester is about to begin—perhaps the most difficult semester I’ve ever had. Nearly eight years ago, I taught a full load of composition and ESL courses at a community college while going through chemotherapy. I wore hats to cover my hair loss, and fatigue kept me seated and perhaps a bit quieter than usual in the classroom. But the challenges of treatment were lightened by being at school: my colleagues and students offered normalcy and respite from relentless reminders of cancer.
We lack even a semblance of normalcy this semester, and no respite from relentless reminders of Covid-19. I told myself getting ready to write this blog post that I wouldn’t “go there.” But I don’t know how not to. The pandemic is draining in its ubiquity.
I don’t want to delve into “simple strategies for creating discussions” or “four things to do when you get to class on Monday” or “the best technologies for live streaming a class,” although there is a need for those sorts of posts. Instead, I will offer three reflections that give me hope.
First, we are still teaching—in countless difficult but equally viable ways. I am teaching a “hybrid” course: in my Tuesday/Thursday class, I have half the group on one day, and half the other. I am also doing individual Zoom meetings, mini-videos in which I screen-capture content to share, online discussions, and a number of surveys and emails. And I may change this up next week, depending on what is happening with my students. Even when I have them in class, what I would normally do is not possible—and I’ve seen the effect of spaced out seating and masks (which we must, must, must have) on conversation and shared thinking. Even when we collaborate in the classroom, digital lines of communication mediate the shared work. We are learning to learn differently. I am exhausted at this moment, but I am learning.
I have colleagues who are live-streaming, colleagues who are fully online, colleagues who are using Slack or Twitter or GroupMe, and some who are combining all of these. Then students test positive, and we juggle our teaching to accommodate both students fully online and those in person. We shift again. We savor the moments when the class latches on to a concept or a reading—they play with the language or the assigned text—and for just a moment or two they aren’t consumed with the logistics of doing a college class during a pandemic (how do I turn this in? Can I go to the writing center in person? If my internet is down, what I do? Can I send you a screen shot?).
Second, students are still learning. “Aha” moments still occur in our Zoom meetings, discussions, individual video conferences, and social media chats. For some of my students, I think the invitation to do classwork is like a luxury now, a space away from the latest news cycles. For some, it is a means of coping, and for some others, it has added a new layer of stress to their already stressful lives. And when a student tests positive, we see the ripple-effects in their lives, the lives of their families, their workplaces, and our classrooms. In my hybrid space, I ask yet again: was this worth it?
But students submit assignments, ask questions, revise and rethink. They are still learning, just as I am.
Third, we are still collaborating as a profession. I miss office and hallway conversations, and I regret the cancellation of conferences. But new opportunities have arisen, and we are still—perhaps even more so—connected. I’ve been to virtual camps and virtual seminars. I’ve “attended” meetings on countless different platforms in virtual spaces, and scholars have shared their work in all sorts of forums. (Witness the Brazilian Linguistics Association, Abralin, which hosted a phenomenal summer gathering of some of the foremost thinkers in linguistics—all accessible and free). MacMillan hosted boot camps for corequisite instructors, too. And in the midst of all of this, I think I have connected more with instructors in my department and across campus locations than ever before. Our questions—How are you? Are you ok?—are not perfunctory.
We have surely made mistakes in this season, just as our administrators and institutions have. Accountability is required, and we will have to address the failures in the weeks and months to come.
But at the same time, I am encouraged. We can talk about what we are doing in this particular moment, using the present progressive—action in process: We’re still teaching. Students are still learning. We are learning along with them. We are forging connections and innovations in the now, present progressive. And these on-going actions result from who we are, simple present tense, across times and contexts: we teach. Students learn, and so do we. We create, connect, and innovate. We teach.
How are you teaching in this moment? What are you learning? What gives you hope? I look forward to hearing from you.